Fragile flower? Try the perfect combination of Clydesdale and thoroughbred. Ride him out west, into the sunset and beyond.
The unbridled elation that followed the Nats’ unlikely comeback win in Tuesday night’s National League wild-card game was met Wednesday by the hard questions that follow: Sure, Patrick Corbin is lined up to pitch Game 1 of the division series Thursday night in L.A., but who’s going to pitch Game 2? And what does that mean for the rest of the series?
What should be the answer: See when Strasburg could be ready and what role he’s willing to take on, and build everything else around that. That includes starting Friday — on two days’ rest.
That’s the full-on realization about these Nationals after Strasburg threw three scoreless innings of relief Tuesday night against Milwaukee. They won’t be favored against the 106-win Dodgers, but they sure as heck can beat the 106-win Dodgers. If they can creatively use Strasburg — maybe as early as Game 2, even if fully rested Aníbal Sánchez is the starter — then their chances increase. Or they could go all-in and start Strasburg, with Sánchez in reserve.
Manager Dave Martinez was noncommittal Wednesday, though Strasburg is an option. “We’re going to wait and see,” he said. But Strasburg seems flexible. Strasburg seems prepared. This isn’t the time to hold back.
“Just trying to be in the moment,” he said amid the bubbly Tuesday night after he shut down the Brewers in the sixth, seventh and eighth. “You can’t really look at the past. You can’t look at the future.”
He can’t. We can. And we should.
Start with the recent past, and not just Tuesday night. The Nationals have to be honest about what they have in three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, which is something less than the best version of himself. In eight starts since he came off a stint on the injured list because of a bad neck and shoulder, Scherzer’s ERA — after his five-inning, two-homer start in the wild-card game — is 4.81. More concerning: He has allowed 10 homers in 43 innings.
Now isn’t the time for lifetime achievement awards. Scherzer should get the ball once against the Dodgers, likely Sunday at Nationals Park for Game 3, for which he would be on full rest. But that’s it, at least as a starter.
Patrick Corbin, he of the 2.83 ERA and .214 batting average against over his past 10 starts, gets the ball in Thursday’s Game 1 for Washington. This is excellent news for the Nats, because it means Corbin would be available, with an extra day of rest, to start a potential Game 5 at Dodger Stadium. That Corbin pitches with his left arm is a bonus.
The Dodgers are significantly worse against lefties, producing a pedestrian .777 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against them (13th in baseball), as opposed to their .824 mark against right-handers, second best in the game. Plus, Corbin has 11 career starts at Dodger Stadium that have yielded a 2.97 ERA. That’s a lot of evidence that getting to use Corbin twice would be to the Nats’ advantage.
Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts has his own arsenal with all-star starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, three-time Cy Young winner Kershaw and new all-star Walker Buehler. Roberts even thinks Ryu should be the National League Cy Young winner for his body of work over the entirety of the season. That’s great. Live it up. Let’s look at the most immediate results.
Ryu, since Aug. 15: seven starts, a 5.40 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 40 innings while opponents have a .785 OPS against him. Kershaw, since that same date: seven starts and a tune-up inning of relief, a 4.35 ERA with an astonishing 13 homers allowed and an .822 OPS against. Buehler, who will start Game 1, has been better — a 3.80 ERA and a .680 OPS against — but still not as strong as he was early in the year.
The point: They’re all gettable, and none is at Strasburg’s current level. For the Nats right-hander, since the same date: eight starts plus Tuesday’s relief appearance, a 1.67 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 54 innings while allowing opponents a .510 OPS. Know how many major league hitters who had at least 300 plate appearances this year logged an OPS of .510 or lower? That would be zero. Strasburg is shriveling everyone into tiny wads that he spits to the side.
But that’s just how he’s pitching. What’s more important here is the absolute about-face he has made, over time, to his reputation. Five years ago, the idea of asking Strasburg to pitch in relief might have seemed absurd — even though the Nats ostensibly tried it. In 2014, then-manager Matt Williams said before Game 4 of Washington’s division series in San Francisco that Strasburg would be available in relief. He never used him (or Drew Storen, or Tyler Clippard), and the Nats’ season ended with those bullets in the chamber. Thus, Strasburg hadn’t been tested in any sort of out-of-the-box manner.
Now, Strasburg is drawing the box himself. The pivotal moment of his career came two Octobers ago, just as his reputation seemed ready to run away from him. After then-manager Dusty Baker botched the public handling of who would start Game 4 against the Cubs in Chicago — saying Strasburg was sick and they’d go with Tanner Roark — Strasburg showed up the next day and pitched anyway. Well, “pitched” is demeaning to what he did against the Cubs: seven innings of three-hit, 12-strikeout scoreless ball that kept the Nats’ season alive.
Throw in Tuesday’s relief outing, and guess how many earned runs Strasburg has allowed in his four career postseason appearances. That would be one. His full postseason résumé: 0.41 ERA, 28 strikeouts against four walks in 22 innings, a .478 OPS against, in part because he has faced 86 batters and allowed two extra-base hits, both doubles.
So what we have here is a postseason stud who led the NL in innings pitched this season. When Scherzer was hurt, Strasburg stepped forward. When Scherzer struggled Tuesday, Strasburg picked him up. Against the Dodgers, Strasburg should pitch as often as possible. Could that be Friday? On two days’ rest, after 34 pitches against the Brewers, that would be unorthodox, for sure.
Another way to consider it, though, is those are the only 34 pitches Strasburg has thrown in a nine-day span, since his last regular season start Sept. 26 against Philadelphia. That’s a bullpen session — a bullpen session at maximum intensity, sure, but not a full start’s worth.
The most important element: If Strasburg starts Friday, he would be on regular rest to start a Game 5 on Wednesday. What if Sánchez started Game 2, and Strasburg was in position to piggyback? That might allow him to start Game 4 or Game 5. Right now, convention must be damned. Keep him ready.
Remember how Boston won last year’s World Series. Ace Chris Sale pitched out of the bullpen once in the division series against Houston and once in the World Series against the Dodgers. Starter David Price also made a relief appearance against Los Angeles.
That’s what’s called for here. Urgency. Creativity. And as many innings as you can squeeze out of Stephen Strasburg, currently the best pitcher in a series chock full of great ones.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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